“I shall borrow this lovely quote from the Dalai Lama: ‘Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck’”, says Deborah Medhurst, the dynamic founder of childrenswear brand The Middle Daughter...
And she’s speaking from experience – back in January 2018, she unexpectedly had to close her childrenswear brand No Added Sugar after 17 years of trading. Now, she lives by the wisdom that everything is impermanent, the good and the bad, which has put her in good stead for coping with COVID-19. “On our life journeys things don’t go to plan and we have to change course, often many times, and in doing so we experience new things that would not have come our way had we stayed where we were. I truly believe that suffering can be transformative if we allow it. To stay open-minded to the possibility that this could be a brilliant new beginning; when all seems lost and you begin again from nothing, the opportunities are infinite,” she says.
Last year, Medhurst and her husband launched The Middle Daughter, a girlswear brand for ages 2 -14 years. “From running the same business for 17 years I think I was unconsciously longing to start something new, to have that intoxicating experience again,” she says. The range is chic yet playful and designed for girls who adore fashion. At home in isolation, we spoke to Medhurst about her incredible career journey and also her musings on motherhood.
When you had your first baby in 2000 you, in your own words, “quickly discovered that the kids fashion land was as dull as dishwasher”. How would you describe kids fashion land these days?
In a similar analogy, I’d say a wash load that has had too much detergent added! It is now very much a crowded market but that’s not a bad thing; for a consumer, whatever your style, budget, or ethical standing there is a plethora of options. For a brand, it’s highly competitive but that drives creativity thus making the market so much more interesting. It keeps us all on our toes, complacency is never a good thing.
In January 2018 you unexpectedly had to close No Added Sugar after 17 years of trading – right now, so many businesses will need to close due to COVID-19. What’s your advice to those who will have to close their business and what did your own experience teach you? You’ve said “I believe a crisis can be liberating”…
The loss of our business, and livelihood, was devastating. So I know it is no easy feat to manage the emotions and practicalities of having to close a business. Each of us will cope in varying ways. During that time I quite often felt like I’d jumped off a cliff.
However I believe the experience taught me so many invaluable lessons. In the midst of the crisis I learned to just accept how things were and to not wallow in the injustice. Trying to figure out the big picture was too scary so I didn’t try. I consciously took one day at a time and that made life manageable. I live by the wisdom that everything is impermanent, the good and the bad, so I knew it would pass. I had to trust in that. It kept me lifted when I could easily have given in to darkness and despair.
Coming through this has replenished my self-belief. Just knowing that I can find a way through has fed my resilience and made me so much less fearful of everything. It has also given me greater humility and a deeper sense of gratitude. Without a doubt I am in a better place for the experience.
My advice would be to not view this situation as a disaster. On our life journeys things don’t go to plan and we have to change course, often many times, and in doing so we experience new things that would not have come our way had we stayed where we were. I truly believe that suffering can be transformative if we allow it. To stay open-minded to the possibility that this could be a brilliant new beginning; when all seems lost and you begin again from nothing, the opportunities are infinite.
When you launched The Middle Daughter you said: “We are less obsessed about building an empire and more inspired to unleash this new girl with lashings of mischief!” – tell me about your ambitions for The Middle Daughter…
I felt in that sentiment that the ambitions I had had with my previous business were no longer dictating how I drove the direction of this brand and my life. I was very driven, a workaholic, and I strongly felt that this way of being had not served me well. In creating The Middle Daughter it was a new mindset; to relax, be playful, enjoy the journey, and see what happens. I don’t have any great vision with the brand other than to enjoy each day, for our team to feel vital and inspired in being a part of it, and to please our customers with both product and care. Simple aspirations.
This is you and your husband’s third brand-building venture together. What’s it like working with your husband and what tips do you have to others working with their partner?
We have worked together for 30 years so have pretty much ironed out most issues by now! In the early days, pre-kids, we were super competitive with each other but once our first boy was born I had to learn to let go. We do disagree, often, and that can cause a lot of angst. We have to be super-mindful to respond professionally not as a husband and wife! Those are the moments when I long for a third partner, having another point of view to bring some balance, even if they don’t agree with me!
There have been a few times in our working life when I instinctively knew a decision was wrong but couldn’t justify the logic. Consequently I gave in, only later to wince at the impact of that wrong decision. Listening to your gut is without a doubt the right thing.
We have clearer roles now more than ever. We have always been so close, both romantically and professionally that it’s easy to do everything together but having that separation of responsibilities in the business is healthy. We’re also pretty good at not taking disagreements home. Once we leave our desks we move on in every way. Working with one’s partner doesn’t suit everybody but we have found a good balance and we’ll never be one of those couples sat at a table not having anything to say, it’s more that we’re fighting to get a word in!
The Middle Daughter is exclusively a girlswear brand for ages 2 -14 years – describe the kind of girl who wears your brand...
I’d say she is spirited, curious, conscious, and loves fashion!
What differentiates the childrenswear brands that work vs the ones that don’t make it?
A point of difference. Passion. Resilience. Money helps.
What’s it like as a working mother in isolation right now?
I actually love it. The relaxed way of working has been a tonic. To lose the clock watching and not having to be somewhere is free-ing. Our factories have been closed in lockdowns too so the workload that that usually presents has almost diminished. My assistant and I are working remotely and our warehouse is a few doors from our house so as a family business we can easily continue to operate our webstore. My boys are teenagers so they are more independent and need less intervention. We can all work on our various pursuits alongside each other and be pretty productive. We come together for lunch which can be uplifting or gruelling, depending on their moods!
What are some of your family traditions/rituals?
I don’t feel we have any significant ones. We have the simple daily ritual of all coming together for meals, sitting around a table, exchanging thoughts, strictly no devices.
What has COVID-19 taught you – any life lessons you’ve learnt?
I shall borrow this lovely quote from the Dalai Lama: ‘Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck’.
I feel that quote is relevant to us all. My wish is that the experiences we have had from this time has allowed each of us to consider what is meaningful and what is not, and to realise that external things are irrelevant to our happiness. I so hope that we do not pick-up-where-we-left-off entirely and forget some of the wisdom that we have gained. The planet needed us to stop and in doing so we were given the most wonderful gift, time with ourselves.
Personally I think it has taught me that I need people less! I have been perfectly happy cocooned in my world at home/studio with some of the people I love most around me. I don’t have a deep longing to see anyone. I know my family and friends are well and coping ok.
The quietude that I take time to seek out in my life as standard has been allowed to luxuriously linger and I have found this enormously satisfying. I love the even-ness of the days. I have realised how necessary this way of living is for me to stay balanced.
How do you structure your day with your children right now – how do you juggle work with homeschooling?
I am trying to savour the lockdown as I know I will mourn these days once it is over. This slower way of living is something I have tried to implement before this pandemic. Life in my previous business was crazy so I was determined to not go back to that. Now we always start our working day after we have walked/swam/yoga, coming to our desks alert, centred, with blood pumping around the body! We all stop for lunch and eat together. If someone has an evening event then they leave earlier. These are our working values and rituals and although the people sat at the ‘desk’ (dining room table) and around the lunch table have changed, the rhythm of our day is pretty much unchanged.
The boys are teenagers and schooling is remotely so they are able to work alongside us without too much supervision. We are grateful that they are not so young at this time. Parents who have young kids and are also working have an exhausting juggle. I truly sympathise.
What have your years of being a mother taught you about parenting?
That it’s never going to be perfect and that’s ok. I listened to your podcast with Dr X and the resounding message was all about expectation. How we all have these unrealistic expectations about how motherhood/family life should be. The reality is different. We get it wrong, we make a mess of things. You live with guilt the minute they are born and often have regrets. My biggest is that I worked too much. It all came in to sharp focus when the business went, “what was all that for?!” All those weekends in the studio or just on my laptop at home for hours in ‘family time’. I try not to dwell on it, to just learn by it. It is however the greatest sadness of my life.
I often ponder on life’s cruelty of only having this parenting knowledge once they have grown. If I were able to re-trace my steps, to raise the boys now knowing what I do, I think it would be incredible, for all of us. But that’s not real life.
I recently studied psychology and the learnings around conditioning have been an eye-opener. When we become parent’s we reactively parent as we have been parented but sometimes that model does not fit with the person we are or are becoming. It takes work to override that but if we don’t do the work we pass on to our kids all those things that we are trying to leave behind. I wish I’d known that.
What are some of the challenges you face as an entrepreneur growing a new brand?
I think the biggest obstacle is money, never having enough to do what you want to do. But that said, without it you become more resourceful. I often think about brands with big cash injections and how that can take one further away from the essence of being inventive. It’s easy to hire the best photographer/ art director/marketing agency when you have the funds but that doesn’t always equal the best outcome. If I’ve learned anything about this brand building stuff it is to be true to yourself/the brand. Only you fully understand the DNA of the brand, you know when something resonates or doesn’t. Other people’s ideas can be enlightening and it’s important to be open to that, but if it doesn’t feel right then it generally isn’t!
Of course we now have the unexpected challenge of Covid-19 and its impact on the world. What this means for us as a business only time will tell. I think the fashion business as an industry will suffer greatly but a re-set was necessary. The volume of production was unsustainable. We personally are not in a state of panic or deep worry, all we can do is adapt as it unfolds.
And what’s the most exciting part of growing a new brand?
Literally the start of something new in itself is what I find most enticing. It’s like a ball of clay that can be shaped as you desire. If the shape doesn’t work you can roll it back out. The beginning is blissfully heavy with opportunity and possibilities. It is my favourite phase of a business.
From running the same business for 17 years I think I was unconsciously longing to start something new, to have that intoxicating experience again.
What are three of your favourite pieces for this season from your collection?
Dress TIERY EYED – A voluminous style in our signature D Print, it’s a really fresh print. I shall be sporting this myself once out of lockdown!
Dress PRAIRIE MARY – A prairie dress in our joyful floral print. Over this lock down I have been wrapping this style for our webstore customers and never fail to think how lovely it is!
Short LUCY LOCKET – A soft sweatshirting short in the same joyful floral print. A cheery addition to a summer’s afternoon.
Can you share your favourite recipe right now?
A Melissa Hemsley red lentil stew with roasted cauliflower, and its leaves, to sit on top. It has a chili dressing too, utterly delicious. I often add spinach as well. I’m a ‘green’ fanatic so insist on something green at every mealtime. Breakfast, lunch & dinner. We share the cooking so my husband knows the expectation!
What book are you reading?
I inevitably have a few books on the go at any one time, currently; ‘The Road Less Travelled’ by M Scott Peck, My eldest son bought this for me for Mothers Day. I am drawn to anything to do with psychology and are finding it compelling. I shall re-read it. I’m also re-reading ‘The Stopped Heart’ by Julie Myserson, my absolute favourite writer. Her books are always dark, heart-wrenching (a child usually dies). I have been known to throw the book across the room as a story became outrageously devastating, but her skill of telling a story is unmatched. I also took a name from one of her characters for my youngest son’s middle name. Yeah, pretty besotted with her writing. I have read every book she’s written.
What podcast are you listening to?
At present I flit on my walks between The Business Of Fashion and Tri-yoga talks. I ‘dose’ according to what I need; nourishment from Tri-yoga or inspiration and awareness from BOF! Both feature people and their journeys through life/business which I find fascinating. On a long walk I will indulge in both. Walking and listening. It’s one of my happiest moments in a day.